Movie review: 'House' counts up the real toll of 'War on Drugs'

Review • Doc puts human face on 40 years of failed policy.
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In the crowd of issue-oriented documentaries at last year's Sundance Film Festival — about subjects such as hunger or nuclear energy or the national debt — Eugene Jarecki's "The House I Live In" stood out.

Jarecki's immaculately researched, hard-hitting look at 40 years of "The War on Drugs" excelled — and won the Grand Jury Prize — because Jarecki made the story deeply personal and found answers that will make viewers truly angry.

The personal stakes come from Jarecki's childhood homes in Connecticut and suburban New York, and his family's maid Nannie Jeter. While she worked for the Jareckis, Eugene learns, Jeter spent less time with her own children — and some of them fell into the world of drugs, which led to an unending spin through the criminal-justice system.

With that as a starting point, Jarecki meets a wide array of people at all ends of a "War on Drugs" that has made the United States the most incarcerating nation in the world. They range from street punks delivering drugs to cops making arrests, from judges reluctantly issuing "mandatory minimum" sentences to prison guards who see people — usually black people — serving decades for nonviolent crimes that would otherwise have earned them just a year or two of incarceration.

Through it all, Jarecki finds injustice rife through the system. Low-level dealers get busted rather than the bigger fish. Cops who arrest these easy-to-find dealers get promoted faster than colleagues who solve murders and other crimes. Those who are caught with crack cocaine serve longer sentences than those with equivalent amount of powdered cocaine — and, not coincidentally, crack users are predominantly African-American while users of powdered cocaine are usually rich and white.

In one of the more chilling passages, Jarecki juxtaposes two interviews with experts — historian Richard Lawrence Miller and ex-journalist/TV producer David Simon ("The Wire") — who lay out in stark terms how panic over drug abuse often is a thinly disguised effort to subjugate minority populations. Simon argues, in stark language, that the current spate of methamphetamine use and abuse has prompted another target: poor white people.

"The House I Live In" doesn't serve up a lot of answers to solve the "War on Drugs," other than to urge politicians to think differently — by stopping the tough rhetoric (and the campaign dollars from the private-prison industry that profits from the status quo) and start trying things that might work. But Jarecki does pinpoint a lot of the problems, and through Nannie Jeter and others in similar circumstances, puts a face on the so-called war's human toll.

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'The House I Live In'

Documentarian Eugene Jarecki looks at the human cost of the "War on Drugs" and talks to experts who rail against failed policy decisions.

Where • Tower Theatre.

When • Opens Friday, Jan. 4.

Rating • Not rated, but probably R for language, drug use and some violence.

Running time • 108 minutes.